WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan could have borrowed the reasoning for his vote last week to delay Obamacare’s individual mandate from, of all people, the Speaker of the House.
Nolan credited his support of the GOP-backed measure to the Obama administration’s series of delays for several provisions of the Affordable Care Act, including business compliance deadlines and minimum coverage requirements. The delays have fueled one of Republicans’ most common knocks against the law: that Obama is giving special treatment to some affected parties but not others, primarily individuals who must gain insurance coverage before the end of the month or pay a tax penalty.
“The tax on the individual mandate, either buy health insurance or you pay the tax, frankly, it’s not fair,” Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday. “And the president’s outlined and protected big businesses from problems with Obamacare and mandates in Obamacare. It’s time to provide the same kind of relief for American families.”
On Thursday, Nolan had adopted the line as his own, saying it’s a matter of “fundamental fairness” to ease Obamacare’s impact on taxpayers if businesses are spared.
“I sat there and I debated it with myself, and I finally said, you know what? If we’re going to give business an extension, we can give working men and women an extension,” he said.
Republicans call it political cover
Obamacare’s shaky rollout and lagging enrollment have forced some of the law’s supporters — especially those in potentially vulnerable districts — into a bit of a precarious position. While defending Obamacare and making the case for its long-term success, they often find themselves siding with Republicans in criticizing the law, and even voting against it, until it stabilizes and operates as planned.
Republicans say these Democrats are getting jittery, faced with defending an unpopular law in an election year. President Obama’s approval ratings have fallen since the rollout (though they’ve bounced back from their low-point in early December), an inauspicious sign for congressional Democrats on the ballot this fall. A Star Tribune poll last month found him especially unpopular in rural Minnesota, represented in all corners by Democrats.
After last Wednesday’s vote, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a conservative super PAC, said Nolan had an “election year conversion” against the law, saying he “must be terrified by the health care law for it to send an ardent Obamacare champion like him running for political cover.”
Nolan said that’s not the case. He still supports the law — and the mandate, its centerpiece — but that he’s looking for ways to fix it and make it fairer. In practice, that means he’s willing to support GOP bills that most other Democrats dismiss as quixotic attempts to dismantle the law.
“I’m very supportive of the Affordable Care Act, but I’m mindful of the fact that there are some ways we can fix this thing as it rolls out,” he said. “I still support the individual mandate. This doesn’t do away with it, it just delays it along with the delays in the requirements for business.”
Conservative groups spend against Nolan
Nolan has been critical of the performance of the insurance overhaul since last fall, when he called on Obama to fire the people behind healthcare.gov’s disastrous early technical failures. While he voted against a nearly identical mandate delay in July, he supported a bill in November (along with Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz) to delay the law’s minimum coverage requirements, a vote minority leader Nancy Pelosi would later call “political” for the Democratic defectors.
Twenty-seven Democrats voted for Wednesday’s individual mandate delay bill, five more than who voted the bill past summer (Peterson voted for both bills, and occasionally sides with Republicans on Obamacare votes). But Nolan dismissed the idea that the vote was meant to provide some political cover — for him or his colleagues — heading into the fall campaign. He said Democrats haven’t shifted their position on the law itself, just that they’ve recognized the need to clean up some of the damage done by its first few rough months.
“Most of us are taking the position that we’re very supportive of the act, but we’re not unmindful of the fact that we’re going to need to make some changes and adjustments,” he said.
Nolan said he hasn’t heard complaints from constituents about the law. If he starts to — with the mandate about to take affect and election year posturing already underway — he’s ready to defend it, but only as a means to the end he’s really looking for: a single-payer system.
“I’ve always been supportive of single-payer, nothing is more fundamentally American than that,” he said. “That’s my ultimate goal. The Affordable Care Act is good in all the various things it does, but it’s no end all.”
Republicans are already attacking Nolan for supporting the law. Americans For Prosperity spent $225,000 on an Obamacare ad against him in December, and former Sen. Norm Coleman’s American Action Network launched a $50,000 buy in Duluth last week.
But Nolan said there’s no point in voting for Republican bills like the mandate delay as a way to defuse those attacks — they’ll keep coming either way. He said he’ll try fixing the law where he can now, and hope for the best in the long run.
“There’s the old saying, success is a combination of vision and execution, and I think the vision on this is good,” he said. “The execution has been terrible, so we have to make some adjustments to accommodate the difficult circumstances people have been put in.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry